'Twas five days before Christmas and all through the week, visions of contorted limbs, flying bodies, and painted faces danced in my head. No, I wasn't throwing back too much spiked eggnog or tripping out to the latest video from those hip hop terrors, the Insane Clown Posse; I was actually envisioning the New Pickle Circus' latest holiday show, Tetrasomia: Circus of the Elements.The troupe's high-flying antics, usually celebrated for their sophisticated blend of comedy, aerial dance, and adult themes, should also appeal to little people, who love it because, well, because it's a circus. Widely viewed as the archetype of today's wave of nouveau circus troupes, among them Cirque du Soleil and Compagnie Cahin-Caha, the animal-free, one-ring show takes traditionally hokey images of sideshow clichés and turns them upside down.
Tetrasomia interprets the Greek philosopher Empedocles' vision of the four elements -- air, earth, fire, and water -- as dynamic forces in the universe. (Try explaining that to a 10-year-old.) The show is also the first joint production of the recently reunited San Francisco School of Circus Arts, the only full-time circus school in the country, and New Pickle, a local institution of sorts. For avid circusgoers, Pickle shows elevate clowning around to higher levels, with shows "completely born and bred" in the Bay Area, according to Program Director Peggy Ford. The recent merger creates a "farm where you grow performers, instead of plucking them from all over the world," she explains. The teamwork required in large ensemble acts is essential. "A lot of circuses are [run by] families, so we make our own [family] here -- because sometimes your safety depends on that other person."
This year's show is the brainchild of famed master trainer Lu Yi, a former star with China's world famous Nanjing Acrobatics Troupe and current artistic director of the Circus School. Under Lu Yi's demanding eye, a cast of 22 acrobats, aerialists, contortionists, and jugglers from New Pickle and the school will perform jaw-dropping feats of physical dexterity based around the power of the elements and on humanity's often futile attempts to control nature. "Sometimes we embody in our acts humans who are influenced [by the elements], and sometimes we actually [personify] that particular element," explains aerialist Chris Weiland, whose "underwater" act will use no water. Instead, Weiland will wrap herself around a piece of blue fabric (technically known as "tissue") hanging 23 feet above the ground, then "dance on air," as she puts it. Another cerebral highlight is the teeterboard act, a conceptual spin on the elements' relevance to the Industrial Revolution, wherein performers dressed in drab work uniforms will be propelled off the plank and into the air as if by the power of steam. As with most Pickle productions, the show will include Diane Wasnak's popular alter-ego, Pino the clown, and will incorporate live music, in this case producer Holmes D. Ives' original score of downtempo trip hop, drum 'n' bass, trance, and breakbeats.